4 ways Comcast boosted employee engagement

In a year of change, the cable provider let its staffers open up and ask what was on their minds—even ‘toxic questions.’ Here’s how that seemingly risky approach built trust.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

There’s a story—possibly apocryphal—from the years of NASA’s race to put a man on the moon, says Comcast’s Tina Davis.

President John F. Kennedy was visiting the U.S. space agency when he noticed a custodian busy mopping up.

He asked, “What are you working on?”

The custodian said, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

In a Ragan Training talk, “Fire up your workforce: six steps to employee engagement,” Davis says this shows the kind of engagement organizations must strive for.

“Every person at every level at NASA was absolutely, personally committed to the mission and the vision,” she says. “They were part of something bigger than themselves.”

The need for engagement is pressing. Gallup reports that only 13 percent of employees globally are engaged. Though in the U.S. it’s a little better, it’s still fewer than one-third here—hardly anything to inspire fist pumps and chants of “USA! USA!”

Engagement matters because companies in the top 10 percent average four times the earnings per share as those with lower engagement, Davis says.

Engagement sparks innovation.

An employee resource group at Frito-Lay once threw out the idea, “How about guacamole chips?” That savory notion turned into a multimillion-dollar product within months.

Following are a few tips from Comcast’s journey to become more agile, like a tech startup. For the rest, you’ll have to check out Ragan Training.

1. Urge leaders to answer questions—on the intranet and in person.

Comcast introduced a social community on its internal platform to get everyone talking about the changes. Communicators urged leaders to open profiles, offer kudos to employees and describe what “agile” means in a business setting.

Comcast also has an internal TV studio from which it can live-stream employee meetings. The executives who lead them offer 20 minutes of content and leave another 40 minutes for questions and answers.

The Q&A was the heart and soul of every broadcast, Davis says. This afforded staffers a chance to raise their hands and ask questions in real time, and it opened a conversation.

“When you start listening to employees, things start to change and shift,” Davis says. “Sentiment goes up, and you have to show that you listened. Leaders have to start to shift and take into account what they’re saying.”

2. Air the toxic questions.

A lot of companies put the kibosh on anonymous questions, whether on internal social platforms or in queries rounded up for executive forums. Not so Comcast.

The company uses a Q&A tool that enables folks to pose questions without revealing their names. Yes, anonymity could and did bring forth questions that were flippant, snarky and sarcastic. Some came from high-IQ engineers with large vocabularies who were eager to prove a point.

Some leaders and communications colleagues didn’t like addressing such questions, but Davis disagreed. Why not answer a couple of them?

Comcast had just hired a highly recruited chief information officer from Europe, and he agreed to give it a try. She assured him they wouldn’t allow it to descend into a spiral of bitterness; they just wanted to show they weren’t afraid to address tough questions.

The new guy said, “Yes, definitely. Bring it,” Davis recalls.

At his first meeting in front of a live audience of hundreds of employees and thousands more on the web stream, Davis tossed him a question involving magnets, wires and Earth’s magnetic field.

The CIO said: “I have no idea how to answer that question. Anybody here want to take a shot at it?”

The audience loved it.

“It was an authentic moment,” Davis says. “He was vulnerable. He showed everyone he didn’t have all the answers, and he was comfortable with that.”

After that, trust in the new exec went through the roof in an internal survey. Furthermore, the tactic disarmed many disengaged employees. Now when they grouse, their co-workers tend to urge them to move on, saying, “Look. You asked your question.”

3. Use employee questions to gather data.

When you call for questions, use them as a source of sentiment data. Comcast counts and sorts its questions and comments by category, Davis says.

How many people ask about layoffs? How many say, “Oh, my God, I’m getting a new boss”? Those are numbers you can use.

4. Tell stories strategically.

To demonstrate what its new agile approach meant, Comcast started a twofold series of internal stories, “Lead Differently” and “Work Differently.” These featured teams or individuals who modeled innovation.

One “Work Differently” story was headlined, “Groundbreaking Olympic dashboard improves experience for millions of fans.”

A “Lead Differently” piece reported, “Release management team banishes waste, gets closer to customers.”

Pretty soon it seemed everyone wanted to be a part of it. Employees were gathering ideas for their own jobs and sending story ideas to communicators.

To drill deeper for stories, Davis says: “You’ve got to go to the staff meetings. Go to the staff meetings one level down or two levels down.” Stand up and let them know your interest in featuring their staffers as successes.

In that year, Comcast went through a great deal of change. More than 700 people moved around in the organization, Davis says. Others lost their jobs to outsourcing.

“We put employees through a lot of tough change, but we did it with a lot of interaction and dialogue,” Davis says.

Later, when Comcast conducted an internal survey, the results were stunning: Despite the changes, there had been a 12 percent year-over-year spike in employees who felt communication was “open and honest.” The gain would total 20 percent over five years.

That’s when you know your internal engagement is working. When the first results came in, Davis says, “I did a dance of joy in my office.”

@byworking

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